What can comic shops do to be more inclusive to women… and everyone?
What can comics shops do to be more inclusive? Nevs from comic shop Raygun East says it’s time for comics retailers to drop the snobbery.
First things first: Many comics shops haven’t been particularly inclusive in the past. Would you agree?
Definitely. I’ve got a story that directly influences my attitude to comics retail to this day:
Just before I started working in the West End about 20 years ago, I was down in Hastings with a girlfriend. I being me, we found the comic shop and went in for a look. All ego aside, I simply didn’t look like a comic fan circa 1996. I’ve always dressed up in glam punk gear and was dyeing my hair a lot back then, while my girlfriend at the time was a super curvy burlesque dancer. However we looked, we weren’t really up to anything beyond having a mooch around and maybe picking up some comics for the train back.
Our entrance was like one of those scenes in a western where someone walks in, everyone stops talking, glasses drop to the floor and the piano player stops playing. We’d apparently interrupted the weekly game of Dungeons & Dragons, or whatever the tabletop thing was. Several men stared at us with obvious malice for the few minutes we were there and never took their eyes off us, even after we bought some comics. They only finished their protracted stare when we left.
I’ve been to Hastings a number of times since then. The shop is long, long gone. This doesn’t surprise me.
While I’ve never been to a shop that bad since, there is a preconception that the general public have that comic shops are mancaves of arcane knowledge, only really accessible to those ‘in the know’.
One of the things that’s surprised me since starting at Raygun East is the amount of people (mainly women) who I have to convince that, no, we’re just a shop that happens to sell comics. You don’t need a degree in the history of Marvel to buy stuff in a decent comic shop, anymore than you need to have read every scrap of the Silmarillion to go into Waterstone’s and pick up a copy of Lord of the Rings.
As a customer, all you have to do is either browse around to your heart’s content or tell me the kinds of TV shows, films or books you’re into. The chances are, I’ll probably be able to find you something you like from there.
Nevs (right) outside Raygun East with Garry Vanderhorne, who runs Lucha Britannia.
As you work in comics retail yourself, what do YOU think comic shops can do to be more inclusive?
Well, I think the trick to inclusion is to work out what’s happened before.
I’m aware that there are many, many shops who’ve both ordered comics and treated their shops like their own personal cave from which to proffer their opinions on whether Barry Allen or Wally West had the bestest costume. Equally, there’ve been places that have got so snooty that the people behind the till feel personally insulted that someone would ask them about the new Batman when they just want to sell the new Optic Nerve or such to their friends. Really, how dare the great unwashed come in and bother them with these…*shudder* superhero comics?
Personally, I think both attitudes have demonstrably contributed to the decline of comics sales and have helped to bring about the desperate state of the industry. Shops have been purposefully driving away women, children and anyone not sharing the tastes of that particular shop for nigh on 30 years now. If we want the comics medium to survive as a physical entity, rather than just as a side interest of Amazon, then the only answer is inclusion. As fast as possible. Underneath the hype and press releases, the sales figures for even the biggest titles are shockingly low, in part because of the alienation of the rest of the potential audience.
The trick, really, is for comics retailers to be as omniverous as possible in reading, so that they can help customers explore comics they might actually enjoy.
Raygun East flies its colours in a window display
It’s vital for comics retailers to not have those ‘I don’t like THIS kind of comic therefore I won’t promote it’ filters. For example, at Raygun East we stock (and read) everything from Spidey to Bitch Planet to Lone Wolf & Cub to Amulet to Hip-Hop Family Tree to Tokyo Ghost to Hilda to Metabarons to Love & Rockets and back to Calvin And Hobbes. We can talk about any of the above in a way to get people interested. The shop is 50% ‘Okay, so, people of Hackney, what do YOU want to read?’ and 50% ‘Hey, are you aware of this stuff?’ It’s the essence of what both this shop and the original Raygun branch in Richmond are built on. We’d rather sell 50 copies of the dollar reprint of Saga 1 to 50 different readers than sell one copy of the 1st printing of Saga 1 for $50 to one person. Speculation will come and go. It’s the readers who will keep all of us going.
I guess the summation of inclusion is just for comics retailers to be as well-read as possible and treat all the customers as humans. Even if they are women or trans folk or children or men who can’t recite the Green Lantern Oath from memory. Wild talk, I know.
What kind of comics are you recommending to customers who want to explore new stuff but aren’t sure what?
This is actually the easiest it’s ever been as far as I remember, working on the basis (as I do) of the ‘First Hit Is Free’ selling method. What I mean by this is that Image, Marvel and DC – and, to a lesser extent, some other publishers – do a line where the first issue of their more popular or critically acclaimed books is reprinted as a dollar format book. So you get all the story pages of the first issue in a comic that costs literally $1, or roughly 75p.
If you’re someone like me who’s trying to move the industry away from the fix-like format of new comics hitting the shelves on a Wednesday and then everyone forgetting about them, and instead looking at the future being in the trade paperback form, then those $1 books are a godsend. Marvel have just released their own twist on the format with the Timely line, being 3 issues of recent books for $3. Cheaper than any one issue of those books in their previous form.
I’m highlighting a lot of dollar format comics to customers so that they can explore new territories as cheaply as possible. With that in mind, here are a few lines to explore:
Doctor Strange 1: A stripped down look at the day to day doings of Stephen, a man with a gift for things going very wrong when he’s just trying to stay in and study some tomes of magic. Really fun and amazingly drawn by Chris Bachalo.
Totally Awesome Hulk: Behind a slightly daft and trollish title, Frank Cho gives us the newest incarnation of the Hulk. Amadeus Cho is a genius teenager tasked with using the power of The Hulk to fight monsters and such the usual forces can’t deal with, aided by his wry big sister. Big Monsters and Frank Cho Hulk.
Drax: Want some Space UFC? This one’s written by ex WWE star CM Punk. Monsters do Kimuras and such.
Black Science: There are ethical lines in science than most won’t cross. These guys do.
But there’s so much more than I’m barely touching on here. Like, the Mad Max/Judge Dredd/Is the Internet actually REALLY, REALLY bad for us sci-fi lushness that is Tokyo Ghost, the artgasm explosion by Brendan McCarthy & Jamie Hewlett that resulted in Sooner Or Later, and the 80’s party of Blue Monday. I’m super-happy that a new series of my favourite comic ever, Love & Rockets, is less than a month away. Then you’ve got the post robot war super coolness of Kyle Baker’s Circuit-Breaker, Brian K Vaughn’s smash hit Paper Girls, new material from Owen Michael Johnson and Jessica Martin, Grant Morrison taking over Heavy Metal, Black Mask ripping it up again with Four Kids Walk Into A Bank…
There’s been a gradual increase of focus on feminist comics with women as key protagonists. Like Ms. Marvel, or Nimona. If a customer wants to explore more comics along these lines, what might you recommend?
In light of the recent events concerning Vertigo, while there are any number of books I’d suggest here normally, I feel compelled to mention first off the vicious and downright confrontational Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick (click the link for Mookychick’s review).
The plot is standard ‘Female Prisoners In Space And How Men Did Them Wrong’ fare (think of the song He Had It Coming from Chicago crossed with Caged Heat 3000). Comparisons to Orange Is The New Black are also bound to come up. However, the underlying theme of the book is Non-Compliance. The refusal to sit back and accept the unacceptable, simply because those events are commonplace.
I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t believe that the notion of ‘confrontational’ is inherently negative, especially given the somewhat apathetic nature of responses to what appears to be an almost weekly outpouring of awful news from the larger publishing companies. We’re rapidly reaching the point where, much like the late 60’s/early 70’s of Hollywood cinema, there are various creators, publishers and shops bringing about a new philosophy to the nature of the medium from all angles. The deadwood and all their hangers-on are going to find themselves looking at an iPhone world where their landline interface techniques have no value any more.
I think we’re definitely at a point where the power structure and outdated methods of behaviour are coming to an end in comics. I suspect Bitch Planet will be remembered as one of those books that helped signify that shift.
Or, to put it another way, come in, Angouleme. Your time is up.
I’d also be remiss to forget one of my favourite books of the last few years, Alex DeCampi’s Grindhouse.
Alex is one of my favourite people in comics because she simply says what she wants, regardless of the harm it might do to her own career, anybody’s feelings or maintaining any pre-fab status quo company line. Grindhouse was an anthology based on DeCampi’s love of 70’s B-movies, with each story focusing on a particular genre. Incredibly striking covers, very funny, featuring one of the few interesting letters pages in comics… Grindhouse also has the current distinction of having an issue banned in Canada.
It does strike me that as I’m rapidly approaching 40, my perspective on this might be somewhat archaic, so I should point out that Raygun’s Richmond-based brand manager Tilly Benson Reid started an initiative to highlight female characters and creators in the field. She set up this initiative precisely because of her frustration with the lack of recognition women receive in this industry. She’s been posting some of her recommendations on the shop’s blog for the last two weeks, so I should give the last words to her.
A message from Tilly, Manager at Raygun Richmond –
“Week upon week, I will see many variations on the exact same scenario:
A family will walk in with a young girl. Upon glancing around, they turn to their daughter, say “There’s nothing for you in here” or “Oh, it’s a boys’ shop” and walk back out again.
I am a firm believer that a child (or person) of any gender should read whatever they enjoy – be it Star Wars, My Little Pony, Batman or Batgirl – without being judged or generalised. However, all too often we are unaware of the voices and stories of women in comics. Sci-fi, spy, superhero and time travel police comics with women heroes, villains and writers; we have them all and more.
Therefore, for the next two weeks Raygun is happy to celebrate WOMEN IN COMICS, presenting some of our absolute favourite graphic novels, series and characters. As well as our in-store displays, we will be featuring a graphic novel, character or writer daily online (so check back now and then).
It is my hope that you both find something new to love, and to let those new to our shop know that Raygun is a welcoming and inclusive space for everyone.”
Nevs works at Raygun East, a comics shop in London, and you can buy comics there. Many, many comics. You can buy them. You are sure to find a comic you will love. That’s what good comics shops help you do.